Thursday, November 6, 2014

Observations on checkpoint-only single saving

Video games tend to have a pretty short shelf life (compared to other non-perishables).  Something may be one of the best games of all time, but wait a few years and, though it is still rated as one of the best games of all time, you can buy it for less than the price of maybe-spoiled food.

One of the things that this means is that if you're looking for low cost entertainment, old games can be a pretty good buy.  System requirements that were once top of the line are dwarfed by the capabilities of the cheapest computers today, the games themselves cost so little that you find yourself not looking for where the game is selling for the lowest price but instead what place has the lowest priced shipping (because that'll be three to seven times the cost of the game itself, and it'll still total less than five dollars.)

So I recently bought some games.  They're built in a console oriented way, so much so that the manual to one assumes you're going to buy an X-box controller for your computer. (When PC games are ported to consoles no one assumes that people will buy a keyboard for their console.  Conclusion: console gamers are less dedicated to gaming.)

As the title suggests, they're also checkpoint saving based games with only a single save game.  (You can replay chapters if you want (which will lose all your progress), but to continue your game there's only one save point, though you can restart an episode.)

This has led me to some observations on the difference between controlled saving and checkpoint only saving.  I'll be calling it "checkpoint saving" for brevity, but understand that these observations do not apply to a mixed system where checkpoint saving and manual saving coexists.  (Which, for what it's worth, is totally a thing.)

Mostly, I've noticed things that are ... less than good about it.


Checkpoint saving encourages you to give up.

As someone who is used to saving whenever I feel like it, I'm also someone who tends to fight things out in the game until the bitter end.  Those two things don't have to go together, but they complement each other.

You can keep on trying even though you're low on resources because you know two things:
1 You won't be penalized for trying.  If all else fails you can go back to a save at a place and time that you yourself chose before you got into this bind.
2 Your ability to save means that you can potentially try something a few times without losing a bunch of progress.  (You just need to have a way to save beforehand, whether that is saving often or being aware of when you might be over your head doesn't really matter.)

Checkpoint saving flips this around.  If you make it to the next checkpoint low on health and ammo you can't go back to when things were good.  Your save from the checkpoint before things went south is overwritten.  You struggled through, and you're punished for it.

This is especially bad if you were caught up in the game, didn't notice quite how bad things had gotten, and hit a checkpoint without enough resources to make it through the next part.  You can either replay again and again hopes that if you replay a thousand times at some point random chance will cause things to permute in exactly the right way to struggle through (while dying the other 999 times), or you can give up and restart the episode.

That's if you make it to the next checkpoint, but you don't know when that's going to be.  Which is the checkpoint saving equivalent of point 2 above.  You can't save if it looks like you might get in over your head.  You can't regularly save to make sure you don't lose all your progress.  You have no idea when the next save might be coming.

You might play through and die just short of the next checkpoint.  The only way you can really be sure that won't happen is if you give up and reload to the checkpoint every time things start to get even a little bumpy.


Checkpoint saving encourages save scumming

Basically the above again, but from a different angle.

You can't choose to save when things are going well, so the only way to have a save that's worth anything (as opposed to a save where you're in a crappy state and have little chance of winning) is if you make sure that when you hit the next checkpoint you're high on resources, whatever the resources may be.  The only way to do that is to reload from the previous checkpoint every time things start to go in a direction that looks risky.

You can't struggle through and hope you improve your situation along the way because then, if you don't improve things, you could hit a checkpoint in a state that's too bad to actually win.

That's especially true because there tend to be checkpoints right before things that the developers think are most likely to kill you.  (Which aren't always the things that are really most likely to kill you.)

The only way to make sure that an ill timed checkpoint doesn't screw you over is to make sure that you're in good shape when you get there, and the only way to do that is to save scum.  To be sure, more skilled players would have to do it less, but if you want to be sure you won't screw yourself over via save game you're going to have to reload every time you think you could have done better until you get your desired outcome.


If you're not willing to give up easily or save scum, checkpoint savings can make a good game significantly less fun.  Because, quite simply, you will screw yourself over eventually.

The more skill you have the less often you'll screw yourself over, but (probability being what it is) you will definitely screw yourself over given enough time.


Checkpoint saving discourages sharing or re-enjoying good moments.

So I came to a point where I looked up and, lo, did majestic and terrible creatures fill the sky as they echoed an aged cathedral carrying in it's visage echoes of times gone by.  And it was awesome, and I thought that maybe I'd want to come back to it, or show it to other people.

In order to come back to it, whether for myself or to show someone else, I'd have to replay the chapter, thus losing all of my progress, possibly (depending on the details of the progress losing save system) play through multiple levels just to access that level again, and definitely play at least some of the game to get there.

Even Mirror's Edge isn't quite that bad, but it's a disturbingly common system.

To show it to someone else without going through all the crap above I'd have to stop playing the game right there.  Then, when I saw the person I wanted to show it to, I'd just have to play from the most recent checkpoint up to that point.

In games with manual saving I'd just save the game right there, and whenever I wanted to for whatever reason I could come back to it in as short a time as it takes to load the game and load a save.  Want to show it to someone else and it's as simple as booting up, selecting the save, and turning my laptop to face the person.


It does free up thinking about whether or not to save.  It also prevents forgetting to save from making you lose too much progress.


There is nothing that will make you hate an innocuous phrase more than having an NPC say it right after a checkpoint and thus being forced to listen to it repeatedly.


Mixing checkpoint only saves with unskippable cutscenes is a crime against humanity.


If one has to avoid manual saving for some reason (gun to your head, innocent people held hostage, whatever) there are two things you should do:
1 Find a way to escape your current situation (because there's a gun to your head, innocent people being held hostage, or whatever)
2 Make it so more than one (preferably all) checkpoints the player has passed are accessible without penalty.




Checkpoint saving is really good as a component of the save system, it is woefully inadequate as the whole of a save system.


  1. That makes sense.

    Thinking about Halo, the checkpoint saving game I'm most familiar with, the advantages I saw were (1) you were guaranteed to have a autosave that was not super super long ago and (2) you were guaranteed that you would not going to be in trouble an instant after saving the game (meaning that the save is useless). But yes, everything you said.

  2. I really never saw the point of checkpoint-only saving. What if you get called away to do something else, for longer than you can just leave the game paused?

    If the game's old and undemanding enough, perhaps you could run it within a virtual machine from which you could take multiple snapshots of the memory?